InSight robotic exploration of Mars rescheduled for 2018
NASA's on-again-off-again mission is back on. Angus Bezzina takes a look at what the lander hopes to achieve during its two-year stint on the red planet.
If you can’t wait until the Mars 2020 mission for a new fact-finding quest on the red planet, we have some great news for you.
The Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) mission will be sent in May 2018 to explore the deep Martian interior and help scientists determine how rocky planets formed and evolved.
The mission aims to put a lander on the surface of Mars to explore over two years, and it will be equipped with two primary scientific instruments.
The first of these is the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS), designed to detect and measure ground movements as small as half the radius of a hydrogen atom.
The second is the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package, provided by the German Aerospace Centre, and responsible for measurements of thermal conductivity and the amount of heat escaping the planet’s interior.
Together these instruments will measure Mars’ internal activity and temperature – or “pulse” – alongside the way the planet wobbles – its “reflexes” – when it is pulled by other celestial bodies such as the the sun and its two moons, Phobos and Deimos.
Planetary scientists will be able to discern Mars’ internal structure and activity, the forces that shaped the planet and better understand its history overall.
This mission is also part of a series of robotic explorations paving the way for humans to go to Mars, according to Geoff Yoder, acting associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.
News of the InSight mission’s re-launch comes after the original departure date, slated to be in March of this year, was cancelled in December 2015 due to a vacuum leak in the SEIS casing.
The SEIS needs a vacuum seal around its three main sensors to withstand the harsh Martian conditions.
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California in the US was tasked with fixing the container housing the SEIS.
Meanwhile the French Space Agency will develop key sensors for SEIS and integrate the instrument to the InSight spacecraft.
The two-year delay is expected to add US$158.3 million to the project’s initial US$675 million – and may result in fewer opportunities for new missions until 2020.
Nevertheless, NASA’s Planetary Science Division chief Jim Green remains adamant that this expedition is the best use of NASA’s current resources as it will yield clues to how the rocky planets formed and evolved.
“We’ve concluded that a replanned InSight mission for launch in 2018 is the best approach to fulfil these long-sought, high-priority science objectives,” he said.